The Unknown Soldier

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, May 16

Sandra Eldridge and Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sandra Eldridge and Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company has made its reputation with delightful stage adaptations of well-known books and stories for children and young people (aged three to 18).

The Unknown Soldier is its first brand new play, written by the company’s co-creative director Sandra Eldridge to honour the centenary of World War I.

Aimed at young people aged 10+, it’s a moving two-hander, examining dark themes including the horror of war and the devastating impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder without shying away from their seriousness but handling them with a light touch.

The play uses a simple device to move between two eras and stories. Thirteen-year old Charlie is staying with his pacifist Aunt Angela because, as we learn during the course of the play, his soldier father has returned from Afghanistan with PTSD and needs help.

To try to distract the bored teenager from doing little but play a computer war game, his aunt produces an old suitcase she has bought without inspecting its contents. Looking through it, they discover letters from a young Australian soldier called Albert, who fought in France in the Battle of Fromelles, written to his mother.

Felix Johnson plays both Charlie and Albert. Fascinated by what he reads in the letters, Charlie starts doing research on the Internet to find out more about Albert and his fate.

Eldridge plays Aunt Angela and Grace, a volunteer nurse who goes to France in search of her son, who is missing in action, and tends to the wounded Albert.

Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Eldridge researched the piece by examining war archives, diary extracts, books and poetry. Without the play ever feeling like a lecture, she conveys historical information about the Australian involvement in France in World War I and the horror of war both then and now.

She explains what PTSD is and how it can affect soldiers and their families. She introduces the Unknown Soldier and explains a little about who he is and what he represents. She also includes a brief section about the Australian War Memorial and touches on the meaning of ANZAC Day.

Her great achievement is to include all this within the context of an involving drama in which the information emerges naturally from the parallel stories she has created, and to convey it simply and clearly.

She has also leavened the play by folding in some gentle humour, with laughter on opening night at Charlie’s boredom, his frustration with his aunt’s slow Internet and his dislike of her organic, vegetarian cooking.

Matt Edgerton directs with great clarity on an impressive set by Anna Gardiner: a lounge room backed by a wall with jagged edges as if it has been damaged in a bomb blast, with little sections of the wall used to reveal various lighting effects. Matt Cox’s atmospheric lighting design and David Stalley’s sound help us imagine the scenes in the trenches, even though the home furniture is still used. It’s simply but effectively done.

Johnson moves convincingly between 13-year old Charlie and Albert (merely adding a slouch hat) and his revelation of Charlie’s fears for his PTSD-affected father is very touching. Eldridge is a warm, reassuring presence as both Angela and Grace.

My only quibble would be that Charlie articulates and understands ideas that might be a bit sophisticated for a 13-year old. A friend suggested it would perhaps be more convincing if the character were 15. But that’s a minor qualm.

There weren’t a huge number of young people in the opening night audience, and quite a few of those who were there were younger than 10, so it’s hard to gauge what the target audience would make of it. I imagine they would respond very positively to a thoughtful play that handles difficult themes with a great deal of integrity and care, and which seems to me to be well pitched for young people.

The Unknown Soldier plays at Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre until May 22. Bookings: www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8264 9340

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All’s Well That Ends Well

Seymour Centre, April 3

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo:  Seiya Taguchi

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

With a new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, created for the large York Theatre at the Seymour Centre rather than for one of its outdoor seasons, Sport for Jove confirms once more that it is one of Sydney’s most impressive independent companies and its artistic director Damien Ryan an exceptionally fine director of Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely seen. It is a tricky piece: a dark comedy set against a backdrop of war, in which Helena, a smart, virtuous, beautiful young woman does her all to win the love of Bertram, a young French count and seemingly undeserving young whelp who treats her with disdain. He doesn’t love her so doesn’t want to be forced to marry her – fair enough – but his rejection is brutal.

The happy denouement is achieved thanks to a bed-swapping trick and an implausible back-from-the-dead scene – but Ryan’s intelligent, bold, contemporary production takes all this in its stride and not only gives us a compelling drama, with plenty of humour, but one that is very moving at the end.

In a nutshell, Bertram’s mother adopted the orphaned Helena after the death of her father, an eminent physician. While Bertram views her in sisterly fashion, she loves and desires him.

Helena follows Bertram to Paris where she cures the king of a fatal illness. As thanks, the king allows her to choose any husband. Bertram is horrified when she picks him. Though forced to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and flees to fight on the frontline in Italy, vowing that he will never be her husband until she can get the ring off his finger and bear his child.

Helena sets out on a barefoot pilgrimage and eventually encounters three women, one of whom is being courted by Bertram. Through their help, she finally wins her heart’s desire.

Battles of all kinds rage in the play. A literal war provides part of the backdrop but love and sex are also frequently referred to in military-like terms.

Ryan’s production begins with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) sitting on a sleek, glossy black four-poster bed playing a war game on a gaming console, the sounds of battle filling the air as Helena (Francesca Savige) enters in shorts, tights and red Doc Martens to do the hoovering.

Antoinette Barboutis’s set design centres on the one clever, versatile structure, which transforms from the four-poster bed to a sauna-like steam room, military training equipment, a field hospital and Helena’s deathbed. Apparently there are sightline problems if you sit in the side seating blocks but from the front it’s a very effective devise that morphs quickly, making for fluid scene changes.

Ryan tells the story clearly and inventively, driving his production with a hard-edged, modern, punchy energy, complimented by David Stalley’s sound and Toby Knyvett’s lighting. At the same time, the strong cast handles the language exceptionally well, by and large, with the meaning and poetry shining through.

There are lots of clever little touches, which illuminate and entertain without feeling at all gimmicky. Helena is seen reviving a swatted fly to illustrate the magical healing powers she inherited from her father and will use to save the king, while the use of smart phones for Bertram’s rejection of Helena and her bedding of him work a treat.

As for the male nudity in the scene in which all the bachelors are presented for Helena’s consideration, it’s very funny yet apposite. Without knowing most of them, it really is a meat market.

Portraying the three women who help Helena as nurses at a field hospital for wounded soldiers is also an intelligent decision, further marrying the themes of love, sex and war.

The performances are robust and considered across the board. Lembke-Hogan has a strong stage presence and manages Bertram’s sudden emotional conversion at the end so well that it is genuinely moving. Against the odds, we are left feeling that a happy ending between he and Helena is genuinely possible.

Robert Alexander is a standout as the king – frail and at death’s door one minute then in commanding, authoritative form the next, while George Banders brings emotional depth and comic nous to the role of the cowardly Parolles.

But all the cast – which also includes Savige as Helena, Sandra Eldridge, James Lugton, Eloise Winestock, Teresa Jakovich, Megan Drury, Chris Stalley, Sam Haft, Robin Goldsworthy, Chris Tomkinson, Damien Strouthos and Mike Pigott – deserve praise.

Running for three hours and ten minutes, there are times when you feel a little editing might not go astray but no matter. This is a great chance to see a little-staged play in a clear, intelligent, funny and visceral production.

All’s Well That Ends Well is at the Seymour Centre until April 12. Bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au or 02 9351 7940